Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My Feminist Hackles

I've never thought of myself as someone who has feminist hackles, but lately I've been all bristly at things that I would normally have brushed off with a, "Yeah it's sexist, but is that such a big deal?"

I started this post intending to talk about the influx of Mormon women on the scene of YA fantasy--from the horrifying (Stephanie Meyer) to the fabulous (Shannon Hale)--but I don't know that I have anything interesting to say on the subject that hasn't already been said.  There's been an influx of YA fantasy by Mormon women in the past few years.  This is partly because they hit just the right note of wholesome and romantic.

For the most part, you wouldn't know their religion to read their books, which I respect from an author of any faith.  I love Shannon Hale, especially Princess AcademyI don't remember realizing that she was a Mormon.

EntwinedBut the book I recently read, Entwined, by Heather Dixon, sent me flipping forward to About the Author with a niggling suspicion.  And while the brief bio doesn't say she's a Latter Day Saint, it does say that she lives in Salt Lake City, where she grew up one of eleven brothers and sisters.  I'm making an assumption.  Look out, because there are further generalizations ahead.

The story was a lovely retelling of a fairy tale I loved--twelve sisters, locked up and forbidden to dance by their controlling father, find a secret passageway and sneak out to a magic garden where they dance each night away.  Their tattered dancing slippers give them away, and their father, determined to figure out how they're sneaking out, offers any man who can solve the mystery the daughter of his choice in marriage.

The retelling keeps just the right amount of fairy tale while adding just the right amount of depth.  The father is not cruel, but overcome by the loss of his wife and unable to communicate with or understand his many (many, many) daughters.  The gentlemen are not offered random hands in marriage, but a chance to meet and woo, should they and the young ladies be agreeable.  The magic is embroidered into the fabric of the world, the danger that the girls are trifling with sneaks up on them, and (always very important to me) their reasons for not seeking help when they're in over their heads are mostly believable.

I say mostly--let's work our way backward with my observations.  (What lies ahead are spoilerish, but not entirely spoilers.  No details, and most of the generalizations are eminently guessable.) 

Our heroine, Azalea, the eldest sister and the one most conscious of the danger they're in, is pretty much rescued by--well, all the men.  Her beau, her dad, her sisters' crushes.  The girls are all helpless--though
kicking up a fuss like the spitfires they are. Still, it's not until the fellas come to their rescue is the day saved.

Which is not to say they're fainting lilies.  There's some tomboyishness, some defiance, some stubbornness.  But the only grown woman to appear in the entire book is the sickly mother who dies in the first chapter, and a woman's virtues are her good character and her love for her family.

Family is a big part of this book, and in a nice way.  It's about being close to people who can't always show their feelings, and who you don't always agree with or understand.  It's about loving fiercely and belonging to each other, which is all lovely.  But it's also about the fact that a girl's job is to hold her family together, because her widowed father isn't capable.  Somehow, this incapacity is more than just a character trait of this one man; it's because he's a man.  I wish I could explain it better.

There are pettier things, too, which I bridled at while I was reading but can't really remember now.  I'll quote you my favorite one, though.  It's Clover's birthday, so she's wearing a corset for the first time.

"Do you like the corset?" [asked Azalea.]

Clover tried to keep from smiling, but her face glowed. 

"I...can feel my heartbeat in my stomach!"

"Aye, that's what it feels like to be a lady!" said Bramble, among the general riffraff and clattering of seat taking and plate getting.  "It's corking.  I love it."

I'm not 100% sure what to make of this.  But I'll tell you, it had part of me scratching my head.

I apologize if I'm generalizing about Mormons and strict gender roles.  I do know something about the LDS church, and I don't think I'm being outrageous, but I also know that everyone, everywhere is different, and that what a group professes is not what any individual adherent believes. 

Am I saying Mormons are sexist?  I might be assuming that.  But I'm definitely saying that this book sees "feisty" as the height of female vigor, and something you'll probably grow out of at that.  It's not like me to notice things like this; I wonder what other people thought.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rave Review

Was there ever a more Australian name than Garth Nix?  Can you say it out loud without an Aussie accent?  I can't.

SabrielWhen my friend Melissa moved away a few years ago, she was cleaning out her bookshelves and brought a big pile of books in to work.  "Here," she said, shoving them at me.  "These are wonderful.  You'll love them."

It seemed pretty obvious to me that she was just trying to cut down on the packing she had to do, so I thanked her and put them on a shelf.  I didn't even open one for years (how long ago?  Well, I haven't had that job in three years, and she moved well before I left, so let's say five).  Then, maybe a year ago, I leafed through the first one.

And, lordamercy, the first chapter of Sabriel takes place at a boarding school.  I fell right into it.  Nix tells a story that is tightly focused on the characters, to the point where the fact that it's truly High Fantasy just sneaks up on you.

LiraelI plunged right into Lirael when I had finished.  Classic second book problem: while the storytelling, writing, and plot were all excellent, I missed the characters from the first one.  I wanted to know what was Big Things were happening, but instead, I was focused tightly on these characters I barely knew (and, let's face it, who start out kind of whiny).  I meandered through it--until the last third.  Then, oh, then, dear reader, the action picks up and you're swept back into the epic battle of Life and Death.  And (another classic second book problem), it ends on a major cliffhanger.  Almost literally--there are definitely cliffs involved.  Or at least nearby.

But somehow, I managed to wait a while before I picked up AbhorsenI think it was because I knew the series would end, and I didn't want it to.  (Never mind that I have Across the Wall, Nix's collection of short stories in the same world.)  But finally, last week, I started it.

AbhorsenIt takes a special book to haul me back from the library to my own bookshelves, and I'm happy to say that I started my Personal Library Renaissance in the right place.  I could read another dozen of these.  I have a deep-seated belief that nothing I own is as good as what I don't, but this was epic, thrilling, and satisfying on a deep level.

The really special part of this book is in the details.  A lot of books, especially fantasy, treat "power" like some abstract, meaningless concept.  It's like watching action heroes fight in the movies--they keep slugging each other, but neither one seems to feel the blows.  Any normal person would be unconscious--physiologically, these people should be unconscious--but that doesn't mean anything, so the fight doesn't mean anything.  Magic battles can be the same, authorial protestations of protagonists' exhaustion aside.  The enemy usually feels invulnerable until he is destroyed.  In this book, though, the bad guy is powerful, but so are the good guys.  However ragtag, they are the ones who hold the power, and there is a real sense that it's a battle of equals, and that it's anybody's game.

Also, I love that a lot of things go wrong.  Generally, your ragtag band of misfit heroes will get lucky a few times in order to win the day.  These folks just seem to hit snag after snag.  They get lost on the way to the rendezvous, slip up and say the wrong thing, take the advice of the wise old ancient, who is totally wrong.  I hope I'm being vague enough not to call these spoilers, but I love the fact that our heroes screw up--a lot.

Because God knows if the fate of the world was in my hands--well, we'd all be toast.

So thank you, Melissa Montgomery, wherever you are.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Too Much Of A Good Thing

My personal library renaissance is going swimmingly, thanks for asking.  I finished Garth Nix's Abhorsen today, and I'll do a review ASAP, because it was just ripping good. 

But right now I wanted to pose a question to anyone who might be out there.  I have noticed (it's hard to miss) that I read mostly young adult and fantasy novels.  Really, if you count the overlap, almost exclusively.  I don't mind that, but I would like to think that I'm getting a slightly broader scope.  So: what plain old books--no category--should I read next?  I don't have a lot on my immediate list.  I've got a few things tucked away--Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson, The River King, by Alice Hoffman, The Bomber, by someone Swedish.  Does Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake count as science fiction?  It's always hard to tell when a mainstream author writes something with a genre-type plot.

So, candidates?  What historical fiction, literary fiction, women's fiction, fiction-fiction have I been missing?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Those Sweetest Words

I'm not even really that excited to read Maria V. Snyder's Outside In, but I have been waiting on hold for almost two months.  The one copy in the system was listed as "in processing" that entire time.  Finally, out of sheer curiosity, I wrote to the library that was processing it, a tentative little email saying, "I totally understand that processing takes a long time, but I just wanted to see, you know, if you're really still processing, or if there's some sort of problem?"

I got no response.  But today, this turns up in my Minuteman account:

Those two sweet words: In Transit.  So thank you, whoever checks the generic email address at Dover Public Library.  Thank you very much.

Monday, May 16, 2011

More and Better

I owe you guys--I've been gone too long!  Also, I'm reading like a fiend--you really need to keep up.

BossypantsNote that this is a link to the audiobook.  (I get my audiobooks from Audible, but they don't give me a handy little linkmaker widget like Amazon does.)  I would have read the book in print, but I would have enjoyed it less.  Because I love Tina Fey, but comedy books by comedians tend to be missing something. Bossypants, on paper, would have been no exception--witty, amusing, whatever.  But Fey brings it all into this performance with her urgent perkiness, self-deprication, and mumbled asides.  I would have smiled at the book, but I laughed out loud when she read it to me.

I love the fact, too, that she has a lot to say.  She talks about Sarah Palin, politics and SNL in general, being a working mom, her relationship with her father, women in comedy (and boy, did I learn something about women in comedy.  Makes me want to smack Christopher Hitchens one more time).  She talks about these subjects with the kind of polite candor you expect from a celebrity--well, except for women in comedy; she can really rip into that one.  But I admire the job she does here, because she can be funny but not insulting, perfectly polite but you can tell what she thinks.  She doesn't say anything brutally honest that you wouldn't expect a celebrity to say, but she gives you enough to chew on that you feel like she's really discussed her topics.

Blah blah blah.  Writing about funny is like....I don't know, smelling something pink?  I'm not really a writer, and I'm not feeling articulate.  This audiobook was awesome and made me laugh like an idiot.  Listen to it.  Now!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Whole New Lineup

Please excuse the overlong silence: Blogger was uncooperative, and I'm not one of those ambitious people who can eschew the ease of a do-it-yourself blog publisher and build my own Web Presence.  Though, with the help of my brilliant web programmer husband, I have learned to do this:

Passage Look at that! Exciting, isn't it?  Anyway, I finished Passage the other day, and it was a relief. It's kind of sad to say that, because I did enjoy it, and I think of myself as a huge Connie Willis fan, so I just want to gush about this book.  But the fact is, it's too long by almost a third.

You get a good, solid start with 100 pages or so of setup--meeting our characters (Doctors Joanna Lander and Richard Wright), learning about their motivations and lives (researchers trying to establish the scientific basis of near death experiences, and whether they serve a biological function; lots of running around the hospital, answering phone messages, and scheduling conflicts), and get an idea of the main driving story of the book (Mandrake, the spiritualist whose research discredits their own, and Joanna's feeling that she's close to the truth about near death experiences).

Then, we have the middle part, which should be much, much....well, I want to say shorter, but the problem isn't that it's too long, it's that it loops around itself.  Willis does an amazing job of creating the tension of the everyday busy person--too many voicemails, pages that you don't have time to answer right now, people rescheduling on you when you really need to get this done by Tuesday.  This does a good job of ratcheting up the tension, but I think that was the problem: the level of tension was hit early in the book and didn't climb gradually, but stayed frenetic for too long.

The story was so good, though, that I can't un-recommend the book.  It's a book that's about the ride, and you need to be willing to climb on and watch the scenery go by, get to know the people who work at the hospital, fish around in the imagery that Joanna is trying to parse (and I won't spoil anything by giving away the details here).  I loved Maisie and Kit and Guadalupe, and I was annoyed by Tish and Mr. Sage.  I really wanted to know when the cafeteria would be open, and I want the recipe for the ham dip.

I can't say I didn't enjoy the book.  I just would have enjoyed less of it more.

Friday, May 06, 2011


I love a good book scandal.  There's the chick who plagiarized big chunks of her book from Megan McCafferty, the cover whitewashing scandals, Harlequin's self-publishing division/scam.  I don't know why, but I love the lowest common denominator.

So  let me tell you a little about the current one.  Bitch magazine put out a list of 100 YA books for the feminist reader.  It's a good list, with a bunch of good books.  Shortly thereafter, a kerfuffle arose in the comments thread, and thereafter three books were removed: one for using rape as revenge ("uncritically"), one for victim-blaming, and one for being potentially triggering.  (Warning: lots of those links have spoilers.)

I found my way to these threads from a post at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and I have been following avidly ever since.  The outrage on both sides, the defense of free speech, denouncing of censorship, holding up of Best Of lists as inviolate, trivializing them as irrelevant, questioning of feminist credentials--it's as painful and twisted as any comments thread.

I know which way I come down, though mostly it's just on the side of really, really wanting to read Tender Morsels now.  Anyone else have an opinion?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Roaming the Blogosphere

I have been promoted to the exalted position of Guest Blogger at Brenda's blog, Pragmatic Environmentalism.  It's an excellent blog that does a great job of looking at the practical things you might do to live a greener life, and balancing them with reality.  Half the time I'm learning something fascinating, and the other half I'm being reminded of something I knew.

What on earth could I have to say on the subject, you ask?  If, like me, you need large quantities of books to keep from going nuts, then I'm your guy.  I provide suggestions for the impatient non-library-user to get the most out of their local resources without wasting money or paper.  I'm going to pretend I'm not part of the downfall of the publishing industry.

Or we can instigate my brilliant new economic plan for publishing, which is where a payment is automatically made from my bank account directly to the author of any book that gets 3 or more stars from me on Goodreads.  We can prorate the amount of the check for the quality of the review.  Anyone with  me?